Monday 25 March 2013

Stone: Some Incoherent Thoughts on Volunteering

Confession: I'm frightened to even post this blog.

It's a week where I should be talking about a "Bones" topic. I was going to post the follow up to the NOT mysterious Etruscans piece. But I'm not doing that.

Instead, I want to talk about something sad, which is dressing up as feel-good fun (in some cases, literally). It's eating away at the subject I love, while simultanously pretending that nothing is wrong, and, in fact, things are better than ever. I am tempted to get all melodramatic and go the whole way with playing as the Titanic sinks metaphors, but I'll spare you the hyperbole.

If this issue is so important, why on earth haven't I mentioned it before? Well, the answer to that is because it's so personal, and so loaded. I didn't want to be accused of negativity, of not wanting to do hard work to get rewards, of being lazy, of being over-priveleged. I wrote a few weeks ago about failure, then dressed it up in pretty words of perseverence and positivity. There's not much to sugar coat this particular topic with, at least for me. The worst part is that I'm complicit in the system- I'm now a part of it.

That system is working for no pay, and looking happy while you do it. Also known as volunteering. Emily Johnson bravely raised the issue on Twitter today, and has blogged about it here. There's a whole discussion going on over at her blog and on Twitter (#FreeArchaeology), and it's given me the courage to post my two cents here.

So, what's not to love about volunteering? Passionate people get to help others, the state saves some cash, and heritage organisations get the help they need? The problem is that those passionate people need to live. They have rent to pay. They have food to buy. They might even (once in a while) want to buy a book to read up on the very areas in which they work. A large number of those passionate people are living with large debts from university qualifications which, while securing them a volunteer position, haven't got them anywhere near a job.

I appreciate that not everyone can work in the industry they want to (even after a long hard slog to get the qualifications they supposedly needed). I know that volunteering provides an opportunity to try new things, and to gain skills (I know this first hand as I'm doing it now). BUT A VOLUNTEER SHOULD NOT BE DOING THE WORK OF A PAID EMPLOYEE FOR NOTHING. I'm lucky with where I volunteer- they are supportive and only ask for one day a week during school holidays. I love the work and the people involved. But they won't be giving me a job at the end of it, even if they write a lovely reference. I know people who have interned or volunteered for extended periods of time- given their labour, for free, to organisations with no intention of employing them. They didn't get permanent positions either.

No matter how much you dress it up in shiny "Big Society, heritage for all" rhetoric, this is work without pay and without prospects. It's open only to those who can afford to take time out from working, supported by parents or partners. (I do mine in the small hours-per-week working quota permitted by my AHRC funding, which I am INCREDIBLY lucky to have).

Working for free isn't just a problem for archaeology (Guido Fawkes has been campaigning for unpaid internships in politics to be banned), or for recent graduates or early career professionals. I don't have a clue what the potential solution is, or what can be done to change the current situation. The problem is that I am too selfish to really battle for change. I am already doing work for free, I don't want to rock the boat. Any protest that limits my chances of eventual paid employment in heritage/archaeology/academe is one that I'm too cowardly to join.

Outside, the sheep in the field are being rounded up to go to slaughter. There's an over-the-top metaphor there but I don't have the heart (or the balls, maybe) to make it.

Please go and post on Emily's blog. Or here. Or Tweet #FreeArchaeology with your thoughts. Maybe things aren't as bad as all that.

PS- there WILL be a Not Mysterious Etruscans post this week. Probably tomorrow or Wednesday.


  1. Thanks so much for your contribution Lucy! This post is refreshingly honest and you've voiced a lot of my opinions far more eloquently and conversationally than I would have been able to! I have posted a link to this article in my original post over at Archaeology, Academia and Access!

  2. I agree with a lot of what you are saying Lucy and it is an interesting topic. Just to add another view point, I was talking to a friend from the Thames Discovery Programme the other day, who said they only get funding for 2 1/2 people, and everyone else on the programme is a volunteer. The important work on the Thames would not be done without them, and they all LOVE to get involved. I also know my Dad loves his local community archaeology group, as he is a doctor (pushed by parents, would have loved to have been an archaeologist!) and not qualified but very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

    Heritage belongs to us all, but I do agree, being able to eat is important too!!



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